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Time Flies

It has been a busy few weeks, which I now realize has turned into a month, and I haven’t had much time to write. What is it about being busy that makes time go by so quickly? Are we dashing from one thing to the next without time to reflect? And of course – How can we make this observation into science fair project?

There are some activities, like waiting for a birthday, traveling a long distance or doing homework that seem to make our perception of time ssssllllloooowww down. While others like playing with a friend or reading a good book that cause time to zip on by.

What other factors might affect how quickly we perceive time to pass by? Do young people perceive time passing differently than older people? How about the time of day? or the temperature of the room? Does time flow faster when we are sitting doing nothing, reading a good book, playing a video game or during vigorous exercise? There are definitely several science project options here!

A simple way to measure or observe the perceived passage of time is to ask your subjects to let you know when they think a minute (or maybe 3) has passed after you say start. Then you can compare how long has actually passed with how long the subject told you they thought was a minute of time. If you are working with school age kids, it might be a good idea to show them with a watch the length of a minute beforehand since they are still learning to understand units of time.

There are two big challenges in a project like this. First, make sure that you are eliminating any other factors that could influence your results. Make sure that all of your subjects are in the same environment at the same time of day (unless that’s your test variable!) and remove any other distractions or variables that are not part of the experiment.

Secondly, since you are dealing with people who have all sorts of factors, experiences and variables you just can’t control you will need to do the experiment with lots and lots and lots of people! At least 50 is good but 100 is better and more than that would be make it even easier to make generalizations about how people perceive the passage of time.

And of course you should do a little background research about what psychologists and philosophers and other folks who study how our mind works have to say on the matter.

This article discusses how the brain helps us keep track of time. And here you can read about how philosophers understand our perception of time. While I don’t recommend Wikipedia as a primary source, this entry has a good overview and a long list of resources and links.